Lessons about multicultural church from a barbeque in the pandemic

Recently, my family invited some boys to our house for a barbeque. Because of the ongoing pandemic and safety concerns, there was a discussion about safety and social distancing. On the morning of BBQ day, my wife suggested several rules which seemed overly draconian to me. “Everyone should wear a mask. Everyone should be assigned a cushion for seating and not move around…” My reaction was, “We already talked about this, and agreed to limit the number of guests. It will be fine. None of us are sick and none of the boys we invited are sick either.” I imagined 4 or 5 boys coming over and having to wear a mask and sit on their cushion without moving. Inconceivable to my American mind! But my Japanese wife imagined what would happen if we did not take reasonable safety precautions and someone got sick. In short, we did not see things the same way.

Our lack of unity was caused by the fact that “reasonable safety precautions” meant different things to each of us, because of our cultural viewpoint. And in the middle of our discussion, my third-culture daughter interjected some wisdom from her own perspective. After listening to each of our sides in this debate she piped in, “Dad, imagine a country where everyone thinks like Mom does. Now imagine a country where everyone thinks like you do. Which country do you suppose will have a higher infection rate?”

Of course, my daughter was right. Japan is a country where most everyone assumes mask-wearing, safety and distancing, are reasonable and 「当たり前」 (which roughly translated means “obvious” or “of course you should do that!”) Americans like myself, on the other hand, can tend to focus more on our personal freedoms. My starting point in thinking about what was reasonable was, “Why should I be required to do something that I don’t feel is really necessary?” I think that is partly my cultural lens. But during the pandemic, Japan has had a total of about 1,000 deaths, while America had about 1,000 deaths yesterday! For a third-culture kid like my daughter, who understands both ways to view the world, it was obvious that these shocking statistical differences are due, at least in part, to the fact that “people in this country think like Mom.”

This started me thinking about how different our thinking can really be sometimes. That is why multicultural marriage is not always easy. When Satomi and I decided to marry in 1987, we knew that it would take a serious commitment to talk things out even when our disagreements were uncomfortable. We made a commitment to work things out for the sake of our marriage and by God’s grace we are still together. We’ve made it this far but even now after all these years, we need to regularly pause and talk things out.

Doing church together in a multicultural congregation may be even harder in some ways, because unlike marriage, the commitment required is not always obvious up front. Unless we do make a serious commitment that our local church is a spiritual body of which we are vital members it may just seem like a lot of work for nothing. It is very easy to get offended by people who look and think just like you, but it’s even easier when they have a totally different way of looking at the world. However that is exactly the kind of church that Jesus started when he commissioned the first believers and sent them by his Holy Spirit to go and make disciples.

The members of the early church in the Book of Acts “were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32) and they were extremely committed in their relationships with one another. Acts 4:32 also says they “had everything in common.” Yet this was a multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic, multigenerational congregation. But somehow they operated more like a family than anything else, even in finances.  They knew from the start that it would take a serious commitment to talk things out even when it was uncomfortable. And just like any family, especially a mixed family, those disagreements did happen.

In the verses starting with Acts 6:1, a serious disagreement did come out and we get a peek into it when we read the following, “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” This would have been the perfect time for the Apostles to say, “I think it is best if we have two different congregations.” Or it might have been tempting for the Hellenistic Greek believers to decide to leave the Hebrew leaders and start their own ministry. But that is not how they dealt with it. The bond of love in Christ that held them together was greater. They worked it out. That talked about it. And they stayed together and grew through the situation.

I’m thankful for my mixed family, especially when I see that my kids have learned wisdom from being exposed to more than one culture. And I am also thankful that God has called me to pastor a church in Japan where more people think like my wife than like me. Having a multicultural church is not easy. People do get offended and sometimes they leave. But the believers in the Book of Acts did not all look like each other either, and in some ways they did not all think about things the same way either. How could God use them together in such a powerful way that they became known as, “These men who have turned the world upside down…” (Acts 17:6)? By keeping their focus on honoring God. By listening to the Word of God and the voice of the Holy Spirit. And by valuing their relationships. That is how the church was designed to operate. That is the kind of church that I believe God wants to build here in our city. That’s why we talk about every tribe and every tongue worshiping Christ together here often (Revelation 7:9). And that’s one reason our church is named Every Nation.

All those heavy thoughts came to me through a disagreement with my wife about a barbeque during the pandemic. But it made me very thankful for my relationships. Oh, and about the barbeque – in the end, we talked it through until we each understood the other’s point of view. And it was safe and awesome!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Mercers

Mercer-Family-2013

This year marks our 20th Christmas in Japan since we were sent out from City Bible Church in Portland, Oregon as missionaries in 1993. I led my three year-old son James, and my wife Satomi, who was six months pregnant with our daughter Alishea, back to her home town near Nagoya and we started a journey of faith.

In all these years God has been faithful to us. When we recognize our dependence on him and submit humbly to follow him wherever he leads, it opens the door to his blessings in our life. God’s will for us is always to bless us and never to harm us. When He sent his angel to a young Mary and then to young Joseph in a dream, they humbly obeyed and through that God brought the greatest blessing in history – the birth of Jesus Christ.

We are so blessed to be sent as missionaries and now to be supported by wonderful people who give sacrificially as the Holy Spirit leads them. Thank you for partnering with us as we endeavor to do our assignment in fulfilling the Great Commission by reaching Japan with the good news of Jesus Christ. 2014 will mark the 7th anniversary of Yokosuka Grace Bible Church. We believe this will be a year of blessing and growth for the church here and we pray that the blessing of God will overtake you and prosper you and yours in the coming year.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Mercer family!

logo Ray Mercer Pastor, Yokosuka Grace Bible Church

http://www.yokosukachurch.com

You can give online to help our ministry here:
https://admin.everynation.org/giving/?P=010229
(Gifts are tax-deductible in the U.S.A.)

Watching the debt crisis from afar…

***Warning, this is my rant on the U.S. budget crisis. It is only my personal opinion*** 

My son was recently laid off for a couple of weeks during the budget crisis and I need a place to vent. Since this is my blog – I guess I can do it here. If you don’t care, don’t read it – I won’t be offended. If you disagree, that’s OK too. Leave a comment below. I will read it.

world_currency_ratesPRINCIPLES

My dad ran more than one very large business and was responsible for the bottom line – income vs expenses. His dad (my grandfather) grew up during the Great Depression, took over the family farm as a boy when his dad (my great-grandfather) passed away. Both of them have a lot of practical wisdom about money that came from experience. I know that for a fact because my dad used that practical common sense to successfully run a large national manufacturing company in the 1960s and 70s. He also had experience running two other companies (one an international company) in the 80s and 90s. One day my dad taught me a principle about money that he said he had learned from my grandfather, “You can’t spend more than you make forever.” Now that I have two adult children of my own and seen them off to college, I believe more firmly than ever that if my kids understand simple principles like this they will have less pain in their lives.

THE NUMBERS

Recently my country’s government shut down because of a crisis. Since that time I have seen some numbers floating around the internet in various forms. They are a simplification of the actual budget numbers that congress worked with in 2011 when the national debt was 14 trillion dollars. Now in 2013 we are 17 trillion dollars in debt and going the wrong way fast! These numbers are going viral because they illustrate the simple point that my grandfather taught my dad. Apparently congress has forgotten this very simple principle. Here are the numbers (the citation is below if you want to read the article from 2011).

U.S. Tax revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
Federal budget: $3,820,000,000,000
New debt: $ 1,650,000,000,000
National debt: $14,271,000,000,000
Recent [April] budget cut: $ 38,500,000,000

NOW: Remove 8 zeros and it could represent an out of control family budget)

Annual family income: $21,700
Money the family spent: $38,200
New debt on the credit card: $16,500
Outstanding balance on the credit card: $142,710
Budget cuts: $385

These numbers are powerful because they represent how far the U.S. government has strayed from simple budgeting principles. When I read them all I could say was, “Wow.”

BUT YOU SAY THE GOVERNMENT IS DIFFERENT…

Some articles have come out that attempt to point out the differences between the federal budget and my family budget. They basically boil down to things like this; the government can print money, the government can borrow for less interest, the government is more complicated. These are all valid point, but the principle remains the same. If we keep borrowing more than we make (and taxes are the only income of our government) something is going to break eventually. Yes, I agree that the U.S. government can carry more debt than I can and still survive. Maybe they can even carry a much bigger *percentage* of debt, but at some point the principle is going to come into effect – “you can’t spend more than you make forever.”

WHAT I WISH OUR POLITICAL LEADERS COULD DISCUSS (WITH CIVILITY)

The other problem I see with the many articles that have been written about why the government budget is different that my family budget is that none of them talk about the actual numbers. Someone is going to have to start talking about these numbers or they are not going to get fixed. Yes, it is boring and tedious work. No, it is never exciting to trim a budget. But forget all the Liberal vs Conservative politics and don’t let yourself be taken in by hate-mongering. Fact is, we are in 17 trillion dollars of debt and we need to discuss how to reduce that before the whole country goes bankrupt. Raise taxes? Sure, but what percentage of each person’s income should go to the government? Let’s talk about that and raise taxes if necessary. Close loopholes and simplify to reduce waste and cheating? You bet! Let’s simplify the system and talk about making it fair. Cut spending? If we don’t cut spending soon I am pretty sure that reality is going to kick in. The principle that my grandfather learned in the Great Depression is true and I don’t think there is any way to print enough money or raises taxes high enough to get around it. “You can’t spend more than you make forever.”

If I’m wrong about this, no harm done. Things will be fine. If I am right things will be OK anyway. I know that God will still bless those who trust in Him. But I think we will have less pain if we remember my grandfather’s simple principle about money.

Cites from around the internet:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/11/what-if-a-typical-family-spent-like-the-federal-government-itd-be-a-very-weird-family/

http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2013/03/19/174762184/how-the-federal-budget-is-just-like-your-family-budget-or-not

http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/277873/bringing-budget-numbers-down-size-carrie-lukas

http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/03/05/the-federal-budget-is-not-a-household-budget

My Story (How I Became a Christ-follower)

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At the age of 17 I found myself in the church parking lot pondering the series of circumstances that had brought me to this point. In very quick succession I had been arrested because of my hoodlum activities, dropped out of a prestigious college preparatory high school, and then gone through two expensive drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs; a 40-day in-patient hospital program in San Pedro and a 30-day stay at a treatment center in Idyllwild. The results were the same after each; the head of the program pronounced me incurable and recommended that I be institutionalized.

Up until this point I had avoided church for years and scoffed at anyone who tried to share the Gospel with me. I felt that I was certainly brighter than any of those weak-minded people who fell for the Bible. I would argue anyone brave enough to broach the subject of God with me into the ground. Or failing that, I would simply tell them off in the coarsest language possible. But now my self-centered lifestyle had finally caught up with me. The only door that was still open to me was at my praying mother’s house.

Mom welcomed me by looking at my scraggy beard and unwashed hair and saying how much I looked like Jesus. But within a short time I managed to strain even her patience. I totaled the family car by driving recklessly and running a red light directly in front of the main police station. When the driver of the other car approached me I expected him to begin shouting in anger. I deserved it and I knew it. Instead, he said, “Praise God, no one is hurt.” Before the shock of those unexpected words had worn off he explained that he forgave me and would not press charges (did I mention we were directly in front of the police station?) There was some kind of power in that act of undeserved forgiveness that took away all my defenses. It was the straw that broke the back of my resolve against God.

That following day, my mom followed her normal routine of attending mid-week church services. But this time when she invited me to join I found myself accepting. How could I refuse, when I had just destroyed her car and then been forgiven for it?  I don’t remember exactly what happened at the church service. But I do remember that every word spoken by the preacher that night seemed to be directed at me. The words spoke of security, “You don’t have to be afraid any more because Jesus loves you.” They spoke of victory, “The devil wants to destroy your life but Jesus is stronger than the devil.” After a few minutes of this I was feeling scared and confused. I just had to get out of there. The people assembled in church that day saw a long-haired skinny kid get up suddenly in the middle of the message and walk quickly out the back door. I didn’t care what anyone thought. This feeling was just too much to handle.

And so here I was, alone in the parking lot, finally alone and wondering about it all. It dawned on me that there might actually be a Creator God and even more, that it might actually be true that he cared about me personally. The same feeling I had when I totaled my mother’s car and realized it was all my fault came back on me, but this time it was magnified by a million. “I know I have really messed up my whole life. There is no way to fix it now. But God if you are really there would you please show me that you are real?”

As I prayed that simple prayer it was as if I opened my heart just a crack, and apparently that is what God was waiting for. I was flooded with a peace that was greater than anything I had ever experienced before. I suddenly knew beyond a doubt that God was there and that He was in control of everything. In a flash I knew that, yes, I really HAD made a mess of my life but that Jesus was giving me a second chance and that He could and would do a lot better if I surrendered. I was suddenly different, but I was more myself than ever before. Even my countenance changed. The expression of toughness and cynicism that I had carried on my face for years seemed to melt off. I felt an intense joy because I knew that things were alright. I could not stop smiling. I think I smiled for a week straight from the sheer happiness that was now in my heart.

A few days later, a pastor read the book of Romans with me and explained the meaning of life from God’s perspective. As we read together about all men being hopeless sinners and about God sending Jesus to help those who would accept Him I experienced physical sensations which were not pleasant. He had me read a passage from that Bible that said that the Blood of Jesus could make me clean and I felt so unclean at that moment. I realized later that I was actually being healed of my drug and alcohol addiction. When we read about Jesus paying for my sins, I was more than willing to admit that I needed to humbly ask God for help. By the time we had finished reading and the pastor had prayed with me, I was totally clean and spiritually alive for the first time. Amazingly, since that day I have not been addicted to alcohol or drugs even though I had been diagnosed by several different respected professionals as an incurable alcoholic/drug addict less than a year prior. I am really amazed and thankful for this miracle in my life. I don’t know why God chose to give it to me – I just know He did.

Since that time, the Lord has led me on an amazing journey of faith. I have a new friend who guides and encourages me daily. Before I became a Christ-follower I never imagined that one could have an actual relationship with the Creator of the Universe. And I never imagined what an amazing future He had in store for me. I have never regretted the decision I made that day to turn the control of my life over to the Holy Spirit. I can say with certainty that if it weren’t for God’s amazing love for me and his awesome restoring power I would have been lost long ago. But now I have a beautiful family, a wonderful church and my life belongs to an awesome God who really deserves all the honor for any good things that come from my life.

I also discovered something else – a purpose for my life. The same loving Creator who is watching over us and all of human history has a plan and I’m privileged to be a tiny part of making it happen. I now live in Japan where people didn’t grow up in a culture that is based on Christianity. In this nation 99 out of 100 people don’t know anything about the Bible or Jesus. I have Christian friends from all over who have partnered with me and my family to help us reach Japan by telling them about Jesus, reaching young people, and planting churches.

If you are a Christ-follower and you want to help, let’s talk. Or if you have not yet made a personal connection with this Jesus that I have been talking about then I’d love to hear from you too. It would be my privilege to introduce Him to you! You can reach me at the email here on this site.

When the Earth shakes (original)

(new video version – April 1st)
This video contains footage that I took personally in Ishinomaki, Japan shortly after the Great Earthquake of March 11, 2011. I combined it with photos from our Every Nation churches working together to help Japan. James Mercer’s heartfelt song expresses our faith that God would meet every need.

(new audio version – March 31st)

In times like this I’m reminded

That my life belongs to you

In times like this I will not fear

Everything is in your hands

When the Earth shakes

I’ll be ready for Your call

For I know You will guide me through

When the Earth shakes

I will serve You all the more

For I know in You I stand secure

When I’m alone I’m not alone

You are always there for me

When I’m confused You give me peace

You give me strength so I can lead